In the footsteps of Kilian Jornet

Alecsa Stewart visits the trails where the legendary Kilian Jornet honed his trade

Alecsa Stewart

by Alecsa Stewart |

I’ve been descending for half an hour since I started my run in the early morning, on some of the most technical loose trails I have ever encountered, and yet I am still at over 1800m altitude. The path is relentless and, once it reaches the river at the bottom, I have to make my way up a steep set of rocks, back up above 2000 m for the rest of the day. I am starting to see how this terrain has shaped arguably the greatest trail runner of all time.

I had spent the night a few hundred metres higher up at the Refugio Cap del Rec, trail running legend Kilian Jornet’s childhood home, and was hoping that training on his childhood trails would improve my running, even over the course of a weekend.

Kilian is the most successful trail runner of his generation, setting unbelievable speed records up and down mountains such as Kilimanjaro, Matterhorn, Denali and Mont Blanc and also winning the most prestigious trail races, from short vertical kilometres to ultra-marathons such as the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, Western States, Hardrock and the most technical of races, Trofeo Kima and Glen Coe Skyline. That is not to mention his innumerable world titles in ski mountaineering fuelled by a childhood spent on the slopes behind the mountain hut where his parents worked as he was growing up.

Cap del Rec is just a few miles up the mountain from Lles de Cerdanya in Catalonia, sitting at an altitude of 1956m next to the ski station; the last building on a windy road climbing the steep mountainside, like a piece of spaghetti dropped from a great height. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample the pristine mountain trails, breathe the rarefied air, and see if running in Kilian’s footsteps could make me more of a complete trail runner.

I arrive on a bright afternoon hoping to take in the views before a three-course dinner provided by the refuge. I had plotted a challenging exploratory route the next day of 36km with 1500m of ascent. However, looking at the abundant ski mountaineering maps around me, I spot something irresistible: the Tossa Plana de Lles mountain, rising up behind the refuge at over 2905m; a peak Kilian writes about climbing when he was three years old in his book Run or Die. So, armed with excited over-confidence, I set off to climb it before dinner to make the most of my brief stay.

The Pyrenean trails are wild and technical by comparison to other European running destinations like the Alps. It’s not difficult to imagine how growing up here would have developed the skills and technique required to move smoothly over tough terrain. I am hopping from rock to root in the woods, before climbing above the tree line. The vista grows ever wider in front of me as I go up loose scree, then move on to slabs of rocks when I approach the summit. The final push is through a scattered boulder field, the rocks sprinkled like hundreds and thousands on top of a very large cupcake...

Unfortunately, I’ve lost the sunshine in the process and menacing storm clouds roll ominously my way as I look out over the Andorran mountain ranges beyond Tossa Plana... no time to waste! A brief rest at almost 3000m, a quick photo, and I’m running downhill as fast as I can, practising quick, light steps trying to emulate my trail running hero. The 12km run from door to summit and back is on well waymarked trails for both walking and snowshoeing, and while descending I pass a couple of runners heading up – more optimistic about the incoming storm than I am.

I narrowly beat the rain and enjoy a warm shower. Dinner is served in the large dining room and, after a generous portion of pasta, I see the same runners from the trail walking in, completely drenched. Speaking to them later, it turns out they came from Barcelona for the same reason, a mini-pilgrimage to the land of Kilian. Ana mentions she was recovering from a road cycling accident several years ago and found trail running after seeing Kilian interviewed on national television, and watching his gutsy ridge running on Instagram. She and her partner, Luis, are also heading out to explore the multitude of trails and peaks the following day. There is something in the air, an energy and enthusiasm for trail running, nature and outdoor pursuits. Tucking into our traditional Catalan desserts – a soft cheese with honey – crucial for fuelling a big day in the mountains, we exchange stories of previous adventures.

The following morning, I awake early and gaze at the breathtaking view from my room across the valley, before pulling myself away for more exploration, this time in neighbouring Andorra. Passing runners and hikers, we exchange greetings in French, Spanish, Catalan... there is a sense of no geographic boundaries on these trails and a wonderfully inclusive camaraderie. Everyone is a friend, sharing the wonders of the mountains around us.

I am beginning to understand how a young gifted Catalan skier and runner became trilingual and developed an insatiable curiosity for travelling the world and climbing its toughest peaks.

I think about the incredible variety of the terrain I am crossing. I start off on wide tracks used for winter skiing, then move on to steep sections of loose singletrack which require the use of hands to scramble up and down. This transitions seamlessly to more rolling hills and verdant valleys where my feet are cushioned by soft grass. Any type of training for any race is possible within 2-3km of home… the ideal playground to create a complete trail runner.

As I summit my final climb, my heart thumping hard in the thin air, I am regaled with the sound of cowbells and mountain views on all sides. The valleys are covered in dense pine forests, while majestic mountaintops disappear into the distance in all directions, pointing to the sky like arrowheads.

Back at the refuge, I finish reading Kilian’s book and smile when he mentions some of the locations I visited, including a waymarked route for the Pyrenees Walk, a 7.5-mile cross-country ski event that Kilian describes completing with his mother when he was a toddler. The possibilities around me are indeed endless.

My stay has shown me how this environment shaped Kilian. But also how his legacy has affected the place he called home. Behind the refuge’s bar, it states this is ‘The Land of Kilian’, and they are selling a book written by his dad – a respected mountain guide – about the region of Cerdanya.

A good percentage of year-round visitors come here because they have read Kilian’s books, an article or an interview. And this further supports the development and upkeep not just of the refuge, but of all the trails and slopes around it. By comparison to some wilder areas of the Spanish Pyrenees, the surroundings of Cap del Rec are well waymarked, and there are plenty of maps and ideas for adventures, short or long, to suit all abilities.

My brief immersion in this world has left me inspired and energised, despite the sore muscles that greet me the next morning. I wake thinking about stories from Kilian’s book, such as tackling Monte Perdido, which towers over the Ordesa, and Monte Perdido National Park a few miles further towards the Atlantic, the third highest in the Pyrenees at 3355m... then perhaps another adventure on the Pyrenean ridgeline, and then another... Being here has motivated me, but it would take more than a few days of hard training to become anywhere near as fast and agile as Kilian. There is something in the air, but without genetics and hard work, it’s not quite enough.

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